Years of neuroscience research have produced a wealth of information about how our brains work and how we learn. We now know that we are wired to be social creatures, attuned to each other’s emotions in ways that help us make social connections and build bonds. Our ability to imitate—available from birth and often used in unconscious ways—can greatly speed up and enhance our learning. And, the way we respond naturally to stories—taking on the emotions of the characters and learning through their victories and defeats—is deeply rooted in the structure and function of our brains and minds.

2013, WW Norton

But so much of this information has not been translated for use in the settings where learning is presumed to happen most: classrooms. In The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom, psychologist Louis Cozolino corrects that omission. Full of useful information about how our social brains work, the book presents findings from neuroscience research on the brain and how teachers can apply this knowledge to benefit student learning.

Cozolino, perhaps most known for his research on stress and child abuse, emphasizes the significance of early relationships in child development and learning. Feeling safe, learning emotional regulation, and becoming attached to caregivers from an early age sets children on a positive learning trajectory. Teachers as well as parents play significant roles in children’s lives as they role-model caring, comfort, and understanding…so much so that Cozolino makes a case for social-emotional learning being the most important lesson learned in school.

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According to Cozolino, the right and left hemispheres of our brain are specialized in function, but work together in the learning context. While the left hemisphere is mostly responsible for language processing, linear thinking, and pro-social functioning, the right processes strong emotions, visual-spatial data, and private experience.  These hemispheres process information differently, but they both work in tandem when learning is taking place, which explains why strong emotion can impact thinking and pro-social behavior. In addition, the mind, brain, and body are so interconnected that students suffering from poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, and physical discomfort will have problems learning, no matter what a teacher does.

Cozolino also reveals what neuroscience tells us about cognition and the way people learn through brief, intense periods of focus. To take advantage of that, he writes, teachers should try to shift the focus of their students to new topics frequently, provide opportunities for repeated exposure to new material, engage as many of their students’ senses and ways of thinking as possible when teaching, and create lessons involving hypothesis testing and feedback. Understanding how their students’ brains work can help teachers become more effective at reducing their tendencies toward distraction.

Cozolino’s book doesn’t lay blame on teachers for problems with schools; instead he seems quite empathic to their challenges. For example, in a section on the impact of teacher bias on student performance, he lays the blame for bias squarely on the brain. “The fact that bias exists is a consequence of having a brain that has evolved to react in a stereotyped manner in order to make quicker decisions based on minimal information,” he writes. “This is not a character flaw, it is just the way our brains have evolved to process information.”

If teachers become aware of their natural tendency toward forming biases—e.g., expecting students to perform poorly because of their economic or cultural background—they can do something about it. Luckily, Cozolino has some tips for decreasing bias and lessoning its impact by creating more student autonomy in the classroom. For example, he suggests providing students with proximal rather than distal goals, giving feedback for effort associated with progress, and encouraging self-reflection in students, among other tactics.

What makes Cozolino’s book stand out is its thoroughness—both in recounting the research and in making the connections to practical applications. Over a hundred pages of references to research articles are provided at the end of the book for anyone wanting to delve more deeply into the science. But mostly the book is a guide for teachers and anyone concerned with the state of education. Those wanting to make the most of their teaching opportunities, whatever the context, would do well to read this book and take its lessons to heart.

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